For everyone My Favourite Things: The art of conversation

  • By Myke Bartlett
  • This article was published more than 4 years ago.
  • 31 Mar 2020
Image: iStock/Filograph

In an age where communication is often via a screen, we’re seeing a boom in resources to help people talk face-to-face (even if they think they have nothing to talk about). MYKE BARTLETT recommends some recent bestsellers, and some all-time classics.

Reclaiming Conversation
Sherry Turkle

Published in 2015, Turkle’s examination of the damaging effect technology has had on communication now seems ahead of its time. She writes about a generation who, in embracing digital technology in pursuit of a greater sense of control, have ended up feeling controlled by it. Although they are increasingly afraid of face-to-face conversations – recent studies into anxiety in adolescents back up this hypothesis – they also feel more lonely than ever before. Some (even some young people) yearn for the sort of connections we used to have more often.

Some would argue that Turkle is nostalgic for an age of conversation that never really existed, but there’s little doubt our dependence on smartphones has only grown more acute since his book was published. Teachers might find it timely in the wake of the recent smartphone ban in schools, offering a possible salve to those students missing their tethered device.


How to Win Friends and Influence People
Dale Carnegie

Dale Carnegie’s 1937 self-help classic remains the textbook go-to for communicators the world over. It’s never been out of print and it’s hard to tell whether the fact that its key suggestions – smile, remember people’s names, be friendly – seem obvious are testament to the book’s influence or if they’re just a bit… obvious.

That said, in our highly partisan digital age, the book’s somewhat quaint suggestions can seem refreshing reminders of a time when we at least pretended to make an effort to understand each other. Carnegie recommends that we don’t waste time trying to win an argument, avoid criticising, condemning, or complaining, and try to reach common ground as soon as possible. “Keep emphasising, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose,” he writes.


How to Have Impossible Conversations
Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay

This book arrives with a whiff of controversy, being the work of two of the scholars behind the “grievance studies” affair, in which three academics submitted a number of hoax papers to American universities to expose a perceived bias in which poor academic rigour was overlooked if a paper fitted in with a particular, popular ideology.

Of course, Boghossian and Lindsay were in turn accused of getting away with poor academic rigour because their findings fitted neatly with an opposing ideology. Given that divide, it’s fitting that their book is primarily concerned with reaching out to those who seem irretrievably unlike us.

It’s a remarkably practical, straightforward (and largely ideology-free) guide to having difficult conversations with the sort of people we would usually avoid.


Talking To Strangers
Malcolm Gladwell

The latest bestseller from New Yorker journalist Gladwell isn’t quite the icebreaker manual the title suggests. Instead, it’s a broad-ranging look at why we often misread, misunderstand or are misled by other people when they behave in ways we aren’t expecting.

The book opens with the story of a young black woman being arrested for a minor traffic violation – with tragic consequences that stem from ingrained racism on the part of the arresting officers.

As well as explaining how people can come to treat each other so terribly, Gladwell explains why we are so easily suckered by powerful people doing the wrong things. The concept “default to truth” suggests we are programmed to assume the best of people in power. We dismiss alarm bells because they don’t fit in with how we expect people to behave. Fixing this is difficult because when we try to systemise doubt, we empower our worst instincts. The fact we’re too trusting is because, as a social species, we need to be able to trust each other if we want to function as a society.


The Art of Children’s Conversation Game
Louise Howland & Keith Lamb

Although not strictly a game, these cards offer prompts designed to engage the most truculent of young conversationalists. Designed by a pair of Australian educators, the set is designed to help kids make friends, share their ideas and feelings, speak confidently and – perhaps most importantly – improve their listening skills.

Topics include considering how you can improve someone else’s day, how you might have fun without spending money and what changes you would make if you ruled the world (always a good one for budding dictators).

Similar boxes have long existed for adults – The School of Life has a range of challenging conversation card packs – but the child-friendly focus here makes this set an excellent classroom resource.

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